February 22nd, 2007


Look back in opus numbers

Don't Look Back, an event organized by All Tomorrow's Parties, is "the season that invites artists to perform seminal records live in their entirety". Coming up later this year they've got House of Love performing their first Creation album and Sonic Youth performing Daydream Nation.

But why's it called "Don't Look Back"? Surely "Do Look Back" would sum up better what this kind of event is all about? Where did this idea begin? And how would I feel if someone invited me to perform, say, "Circus Maximus" or "Ping Pong" in a penguin suit at the Royal Festival Hall?

I feel pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. It clearly represents a museumification -- if not a mummification -- of pop music, a shift to the kind of classical music mindset where performers are reduced to interpreters of a canon, doing a "repertory" of set, venerated masterpieces. Bob Dylan performs his Opus 6! (Implication: when he's dead and gone, someone else will perform it with the same reverence. Or possibly more.) It's part of the Mojo-retro-necro shift I've noticed happening to this once-vital art form, and to that extent I deplore it.

I think you can see the process taking shape in the 1990s, when Philip Glass made (rather bad) symphonic versions of Bowie and Eno's albums Low (recorded fresh and spontaneous in 1976, made into a bad symphony in 1992) and "Heroes" (recorded fresh and spontaneous in 1977, made into a bad symphony in 1996). Bowie performed the Low album in its entirety when he came to Berlin in 2003.

It isn't just the kind of person who reads Mojo and wants rock music to be "classic" who wants this kind of event to happen, though. Fine art, when it turns its attention to popular music, is currently very interested in the idea of "faithful" reconstructions. Take my friends Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. By day they actually work in the music industry. By night they're artists, and you're likely to find them staging a reconstruction of the Ziggy farewell concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, or a live re-enactment of The Cramps' seminal 1978 performance at Napa Mental Institute.

Note that word "seminal", which crops up both in the BBC's plug for Forsyth and Pollard and the blurb for Don't Look Back. "Seminal" is a nasty word, a word that suggests that artists shoot their load and can then only do a sort of "repetition-gurning" thing whereby they mime the resulting orgasm for coins for the rest of their lives. "Seminal" annoys me the same way "iconic" annoys me. "Iconic" is the favourite word of the appalling Kirsty Wark on the dreadful Newsnight Review, the BBC's dismal arts review programme. "Iconic" basically means "something famous, something you'll have heard of even if you aren't much into art and culture". It plugs right into repetition culture, celebrity culture, Top 10 lists, soundbites.

So when artists are invited to perform (for coins) their "seminal" and "iconic" albums, they're basically being told to knuckle under and accept that they probably only made one statement loud enough to reach the back of the hall -- or even to fill the hall -- one statement the people who don't particularly care about art might care to hear. Of course, some artists do only make one important statement, one good album, or have one hit song that touches sublimity and gets inside everybody and makes the Classic Radio playlists. It's a dismal thing, that, almost a curse. I'd much rather have, you know, The Fall. Or me. Productivity, process, pluralism, those are the things. In fact, given that Eno believes so much in process and texture, I'd imagine he must have been appalled, secretly, by Philip Glass's vulgar treatment of Low and "Heroes". He's probably too diplomatic to say it, though. And I genuinely believe Bowie was delighted by the whole thing.

Then again, there are some things to be said for the pop opus trend. First of all, it reminds musicians that they aren't just satisfying themselves when they make music. A finished record becomes the property of the public who embraces it. And some records are embraced much more widely and forcefully than others. Why not allow the public to time travel by revisiting a record they particularly liked, a record that became a part of their lives? It could be a powerful communal experience.

Secondly, if this does represent a museumification of pop music, is that necessarily a bad thing? Sure, vitality is great ("energy is eternal delight", says Blake's hellish proverb). But a certain kind of calm, dead quality can be lovely too. I've waxed lyrical about embalming fluid often enough in these pages, in essays like Classicism and Atrocity and Museums are better than clubs. Who needs raw spontaneous animal vitality when deadness and classicism can be so marble-lovely?

Thirdly, I did have an idea recently, an idea for a series of art shows that would take place over the next twenty years. Each show would reproduce an album of mine. The gallery would be full of contemporaneous memorabilia, and I'd be sitting there, singing that year's songs. The idea would be to try to recapture and capitalize, in the art world, on an unfulfilled potential, an excessive, over-qualified creativity squandered in the ephemeral pop world. Turning failure into success, I would offer myself that impossibility, a second bite at the cherry.

But why save such a good idea for the art world? I'd like to announce, today, that I am prepared to accept commissions to perform selected albums from my back catalogue in their entirety in chandelier-filled concert halls. Should I receive such a commission, I shall restore the records as painstakingly as the Donald Sutherland character in "Don't Look Now" restores Venetian frescoes. I shall scour eBay for the exact electronic devices I used to record said albums, and turn thrift stores inside out to find the shabby corduroy suits and ill-advised early acid house ravewear I was sporting as I recorded them. Wigs reproducing the perm and dye jobs I let Vidal Sassoon hairdressing students crop and chop into my hair will be acquired and adapted. I shall re-read diaries to get into the exact emotional state I was in when I was "the tender pervert" and "the poison boyfriend".

The fee I will require for each reconstructed album will be one million dollars. Eternity doesn't come cheap, you know.